Seeking out the hidden treasures of Florence

Travel Weekly Europe editor Kenneth Kiesnoski spent a few days uncovering some of the surprising, hidden attractions tucked away on the well-trod streets of Florence:

f there's a less likely contender than Florence among Italian cities for the title "undiscovered," I'd be hard-pressed to name it.

Rome? Too huge; there's plenty left to ferret out. Venice, you say? Well, maybe, but for the sheer volume of foreign tourists flooding cobblestoned city streets and seeping into almost every nook and cranny, even watery Venice seems to take a backseat on the crowded gondola to Florence.

But lo and behold, there are many Florentine attractions old and new -- in particular, museums -- that still practically go begging for visitors in a city whose museums attract 6 million tourists a year.

They can offer your clients welcome -- and enlightening -- respites between bouts of jockeying for position at the crowded Uffizi Gallery, standing in line in front of the Academy or slowly scaling the dome of the Duomo.

And, most are right under the noses of the unsuspecting crowds clogging Florence's most popular sights.

From my base at the Westin Excelsior Florence, a magnificently appointed and conveniently located hotel on the river Arno (see Room Key below), I set out to acquaint myself with the city's less-heralded charms.

The 'other' Uffizi

One such find is the Contini-Bonacossi Art Gallery, a new, uncrowded addition to the Uffizi complex that houses 144 works of art deeded to the city by a local count of the same name in 1969.

Housed until recently in the Pitti Palace across the Arno, the 35 paintings -- including works by Cimabue, Goya, Velazquez and El Greco -- 12 sculptures, 48 pieces of glazed Majolica earthenware, 11 ceramic coats of arms and 38 pieces of furniture have been moved to renovated apartments in the Uffizi itself that once housed the Grand Duke's grooms.

The smell and gleam of the fresh wall paint in the gallery pose a sharp contrast to its ancient inventory, such as the 13th century "Madonna and Child" by Cimabue and a strikingly lifelike statue of St. Lawrence sculpted by baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini in about 1614, when he was just 16 years old.

Access to the Contini-Bonacossi Art Gallery is strictly limited, but groups of fewer than 20 can visit on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, by appointment, for an entrance fee of about $8.50 per person; to reserve, call (011) 39-055 238-8618.

Palatial secrets

Like the Uffizi, the nearby Palazzo Vecchio, a Florentine icon and major tourist magnet, is home to hidden treasures overlooked by or unavailable to most visitors.

The Palazzo Vecchio still holds some secrets, accessible only to those who opt for the Secret Routes tour. Curators from the Museo dei Ragazzi -- an educational group that organizes activities at the Palazzo, the Science History Museum and the Stibbert Museum -- now offer a guided Secret Routes tour that takes in previously unseen rooms and chambers in the 700-year-old structure.

My tour began with a steep climb up the secret, stone staircase erected in the early 14th century by Gualtieri di Brienne, Duke of Athens and unpopular Lord of Florence, to ensure his comings and goings went unnoticed.

After much twisting, huffing and puffing, I ended up in the former bedroom -- surprisingly tiny and plain -- of Grand Duke Cosimo I Medici, who moved his court to the palace in 1540.

From there, the tour enters the studiolo, or studio, of his son, Francisco I, a dabbler in alchemy and other arcane arts.

The studio, built by Medici architect Giorgio Vasari in 1570, is a cramped, barrel-vaulted, rectangular chamber lacking windows -- perfect for secret experiments -- but featuring panels painted by more than 30 different local artists.

Some of the panels mask doors and secret cabinets and passages; one hides yet another staircase, which leads up to the small, secret treasury of Cosimo I. The studio normally is only open to visitors via a window in the grand Salone dei Cinquecento hall.

The Secret Routes tour ends above that expansive space, in the attic built by Vasari to support the 34 massive, gilded ceiling panels he painted for the salon depicting the life of Cosimo I.

The 71-foot loft is a wonder of Renaissance engineering, where 12 roof and 13 ceiling supports have stood for more than 400 years to ensure that 11,250 square feet of art doesn't come crashing down on visitors milling about the salon below.

Small groups of eight to 10 people can embark on the two-hour, guided Secret Routes tour in Italian and English on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, beginning at 9:30 a.m., or on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m.

Entrance is about $1.50 for children age 12 and younger, $5.20 for ages 13 to 20 and $6.70 for adults; for reservations, call (011) 39-055 276-8224 or e-mail [email protected]. For more information, visit www.museoragazzi.it.

Ancient mysteries

For a glimpse into Florence's ancient past, I visited the Archeological Museum at the Palazzo della Crocetta, erected in 1620 on the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, which architect Filippo Brunelleschi raised as the city's first Renaissance-style public square.

The museum features one of the world's most important collections of bronze sculptures and funerary urns from the long-vanished Etruscan culture, which ruled much of Italy before the rise of Rome. The mysterious Etruscans fascinated Grand Duke Cosimo I, who assembled the core collection in the 16th century.

In addition to the Etruscan pieces, the museum boasts impressive Egyptian, Greek and Roman sculpture collections as well as a beautiful display of ancient cameos and broaches.

What I found most pleasing was a reconstructed Etruscan burial mound in the garden. Not only was it eerily thrilling to view the burial urns in their "natural" setting, but the chilly subterranean chamber felt 20 degrees cooler on the steamy, humid day I toured the museum.

The museum is open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, except Mondays, and until 1 p.m. on Sundays; for more information, call (011) 39-055 23575.

The charms of arms

The unexpected surprise hit of my explorations was the Stibbert Museum, noted for its odd-bedfellows collection of Italian and foreign porcelain, along with European and Asian arms and armor of the 15th through 17th centuries.

The un-Italian moniker of the museum is owed to Frederick Stibbert, the 19th century, Florence-born English collector whose lifelong purchases comprise the museum's holdings.

To tell the truth, as a confirmed pacifist and not much of a cook, I had been prepared to be underwhelmed by the Stibbert's displays of weapons and dishes, but the collections were fascinating.

The extensive, 60-room villa housing the museum, its lavish furnishings and the surrounding garden alone are worth a visit, but the collection hits a high note with a cavalcade of 14 horsemen and steeds outfitted in Italian, German and Islamic armor, and an outstanding display of exotic Oriental armor and swords.

The Cavalcade Room was recently adopted by a coalition of nine Florence hotels that will fund its restoration and maintenance; also in the pipeline is a new Majolica collection by year's end.

Although the Stibbert is the first museum many native Florentines visit as children, it remains outside the norm for short-term visitors hurrying to the city's top sites, said longtime curator Charles Fuchs.

"We're definitely below the top strata of attractions," he said. "It's important that people come to Florence for a longer period of time."

Fuchs recommends devoting a half-day to fully explore the Stibbert's extensive treasures; the villa, at via F. Stibbert 26 just outside the city center, is accessible by either the No. 4 bus (the Fabroni 3 stop) or a 20-minute walk from the main train station.

The Stibbert is open Mondays to Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Fridays to Sundays to 6 p.m.; admission is about $5. Group visits begin on the hour, but large and school groups must book in advance. For more information, call (011) 39-055 475-520 or e-mail [email protected].

For more information on Florence, call (212) 245-5618 or visit www.italiantourism.com.

Room key: Westin Excelsior
Address: Piazza Ognissanti 3, 50123 Florence, Italy
Phone: (011) 39-055-264-201
Reservations: (800) 937-8461
Fax: (011) 39-055-210-278
Web:www.westin.com/excelsiorflorence
E-mail:[email protected]
General manager: Michaele Frignani
Built: circa 1833 (renovated 1927, 1997)
Rates: From $335 (standard room) to $650 (executive suite) per night, double
Commission: 10%
Location: At Piazza Ognissanti on the River Arno, walking distance to Ponte Vecchio, train station, the Duomo
Rooms: 171 rooms (16 suites)
Facilities: "Il Cestello" restaurant; "Donatello" bar; conference, banquet facilities
Raves: Stunning views, ideal location, friendly staff
Rants: Standard rooms a tad small vis-a-vis rates, but again -- location, location, location!

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